If you’re a frequent consumer of specialty coffee, chances are you have come across several certifications and registration programs. Some may include Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly, Shade Grown, Rainforest Certified, and others. What exactly do these mean, and how concerned should you be about the presence or lack of certification?
Certifications are great, and they provide some clarity to an otherwise muddled chain of custody on the commodity market. Where an item came from, how it was produced, and weather or not it was sourced ethically should be of concern to a consumer. We value transparency, and increasingly, we have become more aware of our footprint and its impact.
In our modern world, we live with a strange paradox. We are sourcing our products and goods on a worldwide scale from people we will never see or meet, while becoming more connected via technology and social media. Suddenly we are able to see the results of our consumer culture on the countries producing our goods. Knowing that our choices have an impact on other people creates a sense of moral and ethical responsibility.
The certifications were created to give the consumer the assurance that they were buying a product that was created with their values in mind, and that badge on the box or bag assured them that this product was up to their standards of ethics. It is comforting for the consumer to know that they made a good choice.
As with any system, all of these certification programs have flaws. What starts as an honest attempt at transparency can become a bit muddied, and it is important to understand the context of these flaws so we can purchase wisely instead of blindly.
To use an example, let us examine the USDA Organic label. The US Department of Agriculture developed guidelines and regulations to define what Organic means, and how it can be confirmed with inspections and certifications. The consumer knows that products labeled with the USDA logo are certified, and buying that product means that it has met those guidelines. We often only think of this from the consumer point of view, and not that of the producer.
When a producer grows or creates a product according to USDA Organic standards, they cannot just slap the logo on that product. They must apply with the USDA to be inspected and show a tremendous amount of paperwork including, records, testing, procedures, and policies in order to even be considered for the Organic label. Oh, and there is a tiny fee involved. These fees START at $750 USD per farm. The fee can range because the USDA does not always inspect these farms themselves. Oftentimes they will need to pay one of the USDA “approved” agents to come and inspect. These private agents set their own fees. Travel time, room and board may add additional expenses.
Consider a coffee farm in Ethiopia, a country known for beautiful and unique coffee. Many of the farmers are small operations; sometimes each farmer controls only a few acres of land. To market their product as USDA Organic would likely prove to be impossible because of costs involved; even if they follow the strict guidelines set by the USDA. In fact, many of these farms are in remote areas that have no choice but to grow in organic conditions. It does not make their coffee any less “pure,” but we will never see the label on their beans.
Even as a cooperative organization (co-op), each individual farmer would need to be inspected and certified in order for the co-op as a whole to be certified. This is frequently cost prohibitive, as well as logistically difficult. It creates a catch-22 of sorts among these third-world farmers, while it rewards the larger, richer and more powerful farms and keeps the smaller rural farmer out of reach.
This actually creates a nice segue into another certification, Fair Trade. As consumers, we care about the quality of our product, we often also want our producers to be cared for as well. No sweat shops for us! With the advent of Fair Trade, we felt good. Those poor people were getting a fair price for their product, and we knew that their standard of living was being raised as well.
In order to be labeled Fair Trade, a coffee must sold through a co-op. Co-ops are organizations that have leadership, and overhead. The leadership decides how the profits from the season’s sales are divided up among the farmers, and how much the leadership pays itself. You know, for leading. Another sad side effect is the loss of amazing coffee. If a farmer has an outstanding crop, it likely will be blended and sold off with all of the other coffee from that co-op. The quality of that one farm will be completely lost, and bring everything down to an equal level. Not so fair.
Although there are too many organizations and certifications to list, the one thing they have in common is the desire to market a better product. For all their flaws, they do have some redeeming qualities. As a consumer, be aware of where your coffee and products come from and make your own decision. Try to use the certifications for what they are: a tool. There is plenty of bad Fair Trade Organic coffee out there, and even more excellent coffee that hasn’t been certified by any institution. Talk with your roaster and baristas about the coffee, chances are they will know about the origins and the story behind that particular offering.
So what’s the point? I suppose it is to encourage you to be an intelligent consumer. Know about the product, and buy it based on the merits of the product itself. Sure, having the certifications is great, but is the product the best available for you? Perhaps there is a tremendously flavorful coffee right next to the bag with all the fancy stickers; and perhaps you will reward a small farmer for his hard work and dedication, regardless of his certifications.